Friday, September 30, 2011

Pan Fried From-Scratch Cheese Grits with Homemade Mixed Berry Syrup

Even a life-long north-easterner (pronounced, “Yank-ee”) like me knows that if you’ve never had well-made grits, you’re missing out on something special.

Grits are generally made from either hominy or cornmeal, the difference being that, for  hominy, the dried corn is treated with lye to remove the germ and hard outer shell before the corn is ground. (Like sausage, it’s best just to enjoy hominy grits without thinking too much about how it’s made.) Real hominy being hard to find in some places, most home-made grits are made with coarse, stone-ground cornmeal. Grits are a member of the same dried-corn porridge family as polenta and corn meal mush. (The latter may sound like a derogatory term, but it’s what the dish is actually called.) What are the differences between grits, polenta, and cornmeal mush? The easy answer is that polenta is made from cornmeal a bit finer than the coarse kind used for grits, and mush is made from a cornmeal that’s finer still. Like most easy answers, though, there’s still a lot of disagreement among folks who know. The important thing, if you’re making cornmeal grits, is to use coarse, stone-ground cornmeal. Use something too fine and the texture of the finished product won’t be right.

Although grits can be made part of any meal – shrimp and grits, for example, is a classic southern dinner – they’re often made for breakfast. One common approach is used in this recipe: the grits are put into a loaf pan and allowed to cool overnight to a form a loaf. Come morning, the loaf is cut into slices, coated with egg, and pan fried till they look something like pancakes. Add your favorite syrup or similar topping, and you’ve got a seriously good breakfast. (In the photo above, I combined them with turkey bacon, fried egg substitute, and a slice of home-made cranberry-banana bread. It tasted wonderful.)

This recipe makes a loaf half the size of a two-pound loaf pan. I’m going to call that 4 – 6 servings, though how many slices make a “serving” is, in this case, very much a matter of individual judgment.

A couple of other items to note:
  • If you’d rather serve the cheese grits in the usual way instead of making a loaf, you can. Just skip the steps that involve pouring the grits into a loaf pan, letting them cool into a loaf, slicing the loaf, and pan-frying the slices.
  • Even though making the grits from scratch using cornmeal is easy, some folks may still prefer to use packaged grits to make the loaf. If so, it’s not a problem; just make the grits as per the directions on the package, and pick up the recipe from there.
  • Cheese grits are usually made with cheddar cheese, but you can use any you like. In this recipe, I used goat cheese. The important thing is that the cheese you choose should melt well.
To make the grits:

Heat one quart of fat-free half-and-half in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat just until steam begins to rise from the surface. (Overheating, or heating too fast, may cause the half-and-half to separate.)

Add ½ tablespoon of kosher salt to the half-and-half, and then slowly add 1 cup of coarse stone-ground white cornmeal, whisking constantly while the cornmeal is being added.

When the cornmeal is incorporated into the half-and-half, lower the heat, cover, and let the mixture cook and thicken till smooth, about 15 minutes, whisking thoroughly about every 2 – 3 minutes. (If you’re using packaged grits instead of making them from scratch, make one quart of the grits as per the directions on the package and pick up with the next step.)

Remove the pot from the heat, and add ½ teaspoon of fresh ground black pepper, 3 tablespoons of butter substitute, 4 ounces crumbled goat cheese (or other desired cheese), and a few drops of hot sauce to taste. Mix until well combined to form cheese grits. (If you want to serve the grits as is without forming the loaf, this is when to serve them.)

Pour the grits into a buttered loaf pan, cover with foil, and refrigerate overnight until the grits forms a firm, gelatinous loaf that can be turned out onto a cutting surface.

Melt butter substitute in a skillet. While the pan is heating, cut the loaf into slices ½” – ¾” thick. Dip the slices to be fried in egg substitute to coat.

Pan fry each side till well-browned, about two minutes per side. Serve immediately, topped with syrup or other desired topping.

As an extra bonus, let’s make the mixed berry syrup shown in the plate in the photo. (This recipe makes about one pint, so you’ll have plenty left over for other delicious meals!)

Put a small glass plate in the freezer.

Put 1 cup of sugar and the juice of one lemon in a saucepan, and mix till combined. Turn the heat on very low. When the sugar-lemon mixture has just melted (don’t let it burn!), add 1 pound of mixed berries (frozen ones that you’ve thawed will work just fine), 1 tablespoon of butter substitute, and ¼ teaspoon of ground nutmeg. Mash the fruit and let it cook down, stirring often. Every so often, put a few drops on the glass plate you chilled in the freezer to check the texture. When the syrup on the plate is the texture you want, remove the saucepan from the stove and pour the syrup into a container. Seal the container and refrigerate until ready to serve.

So there you have it: cheese grits from scratch, pan fried to deliciousness and topped with home-made mixed berry syrup. Life is good, folks.

If you prefer your recipes in cookbook-style format, just send me a note and it will be sent!

Hope to see you next week for another tasty, reduced fat recipe! Till then, stay well, keep it about the food, and always remember to kiss the cook. ;-)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Easy Tomato-Basil Gnocchi with Rosemary-Olive Oil Sauce

As wonderful as it is when my sons are home from college, there is one disadvantage: there are a lot of things they just don’t like to eat. Now, it’s one thing if someone in your house doesn’t like goat cheese, or juniper berries, or some other semi-exotic ingredient that may be great items but that we all know you can cook scores of things without. I can even live with the fact that one of my sons won’t go near my favorite ingredient, mushrooms. But potatoes? How do you cook without potatoes?

And so, though I miss my sons while they are at school, I was able to console myself by working on something I’d had to put off while they were here: Tomato-Basil Gnocchi with Rosemary Olive Oil Sauce.

Gnocchi (pronounced nyoh-kee) are, of course, tasty little potato dumplings. They’re normally served as a pasta course, though I think they work very well as a side dish.

They are also quite easy to make. The main thing with gnocchi is to limit the amount of moisture that makes its way into the dough; too much moisture can result in either mushy gnocchi (which may be fun to say out loud, but not to eat) or, if you increase the flour to compensate for the moisture, in heavy, unpleasant dumplings. Good gnocchi have a light quality.

Since this recipe includes the somewhat unusual addition of tomato paste into the gnocchi dough, several approaches are taken to address the need to limit moisture:
·         Russet potatoes, which have a moisture content lower than most other potatoes, are used.
·         At two different points in the recipe, the potatoes are set out to let steam off and dry some.
·         The potatoes are baked, not boiled. Baking gives a deeper flavor, and avoids adding more water to the potatoes.

The texture is also controlled here by using a food mill instead of a masher. Mashing is a harsh process that breaks up more of the starch than the food mill does,  resulting in a more starchy dough.

Since these gnocchi are infused with basil and tomato, I opted here for a simple sauce of oil, garlic, rosemary, and a bit of vinegar and salt. Needless to say, feel free to use any sauce you prefer.

This recipe makes 4 servings.

Pierce and bake 2 pounds of russet potatoes in a microwave or for 45-60 minutes in a 400 degree oven until a fork penetrates easily.

While the potatoes are baking, prepare the sauce as follows:

  • Warm ¼ cup of olive oil in a pan. Add 4 cloves of minced garlic, and cook for another minute.
  • Turn off the heat and add the 1 teaspoon of dried rosemary to the olive oil. Stir for another minute.
  • Add ¼ teaspoon of kosher salt and stir till combined.
  • Cover the pan till ready to serve. (In the photo, you'll note how Willie, the lord of the manor, oversees my work in the kitchen.)

Cut the baked potatoes in half, then cut each half into 1” pieces. (Unpeeled is ok; the food mill will remove the skin.) Place the sliced potatoes on a parchment or foil-lined baking sheet for about ten minutes while they give off steam.

Place the cooled potatoes into a ricer or food mill over a bowl. After putting the potatoes through the ricer or food mill, spread the potatoes out again on the parchment or foil lined baking sheet and let dry for another ten minutes.

Place the potatoes in a bowl, and add the following remaining gnocchi ingredients:  1 egg-substitute egg; 2-1/4 cup AP flour; 1 tablespoon dried basil or 2 – 3 tablespoon of fresh chopped basil; ¼ cup tomato paste; ¾ teaspoon kosher salt. Gently mix by hand until combined, then turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead only until it is smooth, about 1 – 2 minutes.

Cut the dough into four equal pieces. Working one piece at a time, roll each piece out into a dowel shape about ¾” diameter. Cut the dowel into ½” long pieces. Run each piece along the back of a fork to make grooves. (It may be necessary to dip the fork into flour after everyone one or two gnocchis.) Set the pieces aside, and repeat for the remaining dough portions.

Place the gnocchi in boiling water for 1 – 2 minutes; as the pieces rise to the top, remove them with immediately with a slotted spoon and place in bowl.  (Work in two batches to ensure that the gnocchi have enough room to move in the pot.)

When all the gnocchi have been cooked and are in the bowl, add the sauce, toss to coat, and add ¼ pound of grated or finely chopped Fontina or low-fat  mozzarella cheese. Put the mixture back in the pan and heat until the cheese melts. Serve immediately.
I hope you enjoy these delicious dumplings as much as I did! If you’d like a cookbook-style version of this recipe, just drop me a line, include your e-mail address, and you’ll have it in no time.

See you next week with another easy, tasty recipe! Till then, stay well, keep it about the food, and always remember to kiss the cook. ;-)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Cornmeal Crusted Baked Fish, Buttermilk and Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes with Rosemary, and a How-to-Fillet Tutorial Video

As you can tell by the long title, dear readers, there's lots going on this week.

Wanting to use the low-fat buttermilk left after making last week’s Oven Fried Green Tomatoes, a couple of days later I put together a dinner that used it for both freshly-filleted fish and mashed potatoes. So this week, you’re getting not one, not two, but three featured items…

  • Cornmeal Crusted Baked Fish
  • Buttermilk and Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes with Rosemary, and
  • A tutorial video on cutting your own fish fillet for the baked fish recipe!
The photo at right also includes homemade herbed buttermilk biscuits (click here for the recipe) and another favorite side dish, asparagus bundles, gently seasoned asparagus wrapped in glorious bacon (or, in this case, glorious low-fat turkey bacon). The vegetable bundles side dish is from a Paula Deen recipe (using green beans) that you’ll find at

So let’s get started!

First, you’re going to need fish fillets. You can buy them, of course, but paying for a package of fish at the supermarket doesn’t make for a very interesting video. And so, for those so inclined, here’s how to fillet your own.

Now that you’ve got your fillets, either by buying some or cutting them yourself, let’s make the rest of dinner. (The recipes below make four servings.) Fish generally cooks fairly quickly, so we’ll do the mashed potatoes first. This recipes uses baked potatoes instead of the usual boiled ones; as with most dishes normally made with boiled potatoes, baking the potatoes gives a deeper flavor that really adds something extra.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Place 4 russet potatoes on a baking sheet and perforate with a fork. Bake for 45 – 60 minutes until a fork penetrates easily.

While the potatoes are baking, prepare the roasted garlic (which has a wonderful sweet, creamy texture useful for many dishes) as follows:

Slice the top off two heads of garlic, leaving the papery skin on. (Slice off enough to expose some of the garlic inside.)

Place the garlic heads on foil. Drizzle with olive oil and ½ teaspoon of white wine vinegar. Wrap the foil around the garlic heads and roast in the oven with the potatoes till lightly browned and soft, about 30 minutes. When done, set aside until needed.

When the potatoes have finished baking, cut into cubes, and put them and the roasted garlic through a food mill and into a bowl. (You can use a masher instead, but the food mill gives a smoother texture that works especially well with the roasted garlic and the buttermilk we’ll be adding in the next step.)

Once the potatoes and garlic are in the bowl, add the ¾ cup of butter substitute, ½ cup low-fat buttermilk, and 1 tablespoon of dried rosemary, and mix till smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Now let’s prepare the fish:

Preheat the oven (or, if you made the potatoes, increase the temperature) to 450 degrees.

Pour ½ cup of low-fat buttermilk into a shallow pan. Put four serving-size fish fillets into the milk and let sit for 15 minutes.
While the fish is resting in the milk, prepare the breading by combine the following coating ingredients in another shallow pan or a sealable plastic bag: ½ cup cornmeal; 1 tablespoon kosher salt; ½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper; 1 teaspoon garlic powder; 1 tablespoon dried parsley; 1 teaspoon dried thyme; 1 teaspoon dried rosemary; and the zest of 1 lemon or orange.
Working one fillet at a time, remove the fillets from the buttermilk and place them in the breading until well coated. Place each coated fillet on an oiled or parchment-lined baking sheet.

Bake until the fish is cooked and flaky, about 10-12 minutes, turning them over half way.

To serve, drizzle each filet with a little olive oil and garnish each plate with a lemon wedge.

And that should be plenty for one week!

Drop me a like if you’d like a cookbook-style copy of this recipe. (Be sure to include your e-mail address.) And be sure to visit again next week for another delicious, reduced-fat dish! Till then, stay well, keep it about the food, and always remember to kiss the cook. ;-)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Oven Fried Green Tomatoes with Turkey Bacon

The classic southern side dish of fried green tomatoes was the topic of a recent conversation I had on Facebook. (Conversation, in this case, refers to a succession of “comments” written in response to a “status update.”) I don’t normally fry, and so I mentioned the possibility of making Oven Fried Green Tomatoes as a healthier alternative. This seemed to catch the interest of the person I was conversing with, and got me thinking about it seriously.

Fast forward a few weeks to pulling whatever I could from my garden in preparation for Hurricane Irene. My forced bounty included some nice-looking green Jersey beefsteak tomatoes, which I could either pickle (a staple of any good New York City kosher deli) or oven fry. I opted for oven-frying as described below. (If you would like to pickle your green tomatoes, click here for an easy refrigerator pickling method. Use the garlic brine.)

Regular readers of this space have seen oven-frying before (Country Oven Fried Steak; Baked Beer Batter Onion Rings). All follow the same basic structure: dip the food to be oven-fried in an appropriate liquid (e.g. milk, buttermilk, eggs), dredge in breading, spray with cooking spray or oil, and bake until crisp. If my southern friends let me get away with oven-frying Country Fried Steak, one of the south’s signature dishes, I could probably also get away with this one too.

This recipe uses low-fat buttermilk and crushed cornflakes; both are intended to maintain at least some southern authenticity. (Besides, cooking with corn flakes is fun.) Several toppings are commonly used; for simplicity, I’ve used fat free ranch dressing here.

This recipe makes 4-6 side dish size servings.

Cut 4 large green tomatoes into ¼” thick slices. Sprinkle the slices with salt and set into a colander for 30 minutes while the salt drains water from the sliced tomatoes. (Credit for this very clever trick goes to Paula Deen.)

While the tomatoes are draining, cook 2 or 3 slices of turkey bacon, cut it into small pieces, and set aside. While the bacon is cooking, prepare the breading mixture by combing 2 cups crushed corn flakes; 1 tablespoon of garlic powder; 1 teaspoon kosher salt; ¼ teaspoon ground white pepper; and ½ teaspoon paprika.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Prepare the “fry station” as follows:
  • Put 1-1/2 cups of low fat buttermilk into a bowl
  • Next to the buttermilk, put a bowl or plastic storage bag with the breading mixture.
Working one slice at a time, dip each tomato slice into the buttermilk, then into the breading mixture. If the tomato slice is well coated, place it on a baking sheet lined with parchment or other non-stick surface. If the tomato slice is not well-coated, spray it with cooking spray and dredge it again in the breading mixture. Repeat a third time if necessary. After the slice is well-coated, place it on the lined baking sheet.

Apply cooking spray to the top side of each slice. Bake the tomatoes for 10 minutes. Turn the slices over, spray the other side of each slice, and bake until golden and tender, about 8-10 minutes more.

To serve, divide the slices into six servings, sprinkle bacon pieces on top, and top with ranch dressing.

If you’d like a cookbook-style, notebook-ready copy of this recipe, just let me know and I’ll send it along. (Be sure to include your e-mail address.)

See you next week with more easy, reduced-fat recipes! Till then, stay well, keep it about the food, and always remember to kiss the cook. ;-)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Easy Onion-Poppy Seed Flatbreads (aka “Mrs. M’s Moonies”)

There’s nothing like an old family recipe, especially if it’s from your grandmother.

This is another of my grandmother’s most special recipes, for onion-poppy seed flatbreads called moonies, “moon” being a slightly anglicized version of the Yiddish word for poppy seeds. (Warning: there are similar sounding recipes around for poppy seed cookies that include vanilla, more sugar, and no onion. I’m sure some of those are very good, but don’t be fooled; those are cookies, not flatbreads. My grandmother’s are something you can, for example, warm up and spread butter on for breakfast.) If you’re looking to make and serve something that’s both delicious and unusual, moonies may just be what you want.

To give you a sense of how my grandmother, who was also known as “Mrs. M,” liked to do things, know that the recipe below, which makes 18–20 4” moonies, is my grandmother’s original version scaled down to a ¼ batch. She liked to make sure we had enough to eat. (The only change I’ve made is the use of egg substitute instead of a fresh egg. If you prefer to use fresh eggs, feel free to make the swap.)

Last year about this time, I got to pay tribute to my grandmother on the anniversary of her passing by sharing with the world one of her most special recipes, a simple but exceptional potato salad. (Click here to see it.) It’s a recipe, and a group of memories, her family continues to hold dear. This year I hope to do the same with moonies.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Grate 3-1/2 large onions on the large holes of a box grater. Let the onions rest in a strainer or colander to drain the excess liquid.

Combine the following dry ingredients in a large bowl: 1-1/2 pounds of all-purpose flour (about 5-1/2 cups); 6 ounces (about 1-1/4 cups) poppy seeds; 1-1/4 teaspoon kosher salt; 1-1/2 teaspoon baking soda, and 4 ounces (about ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon) sugar.

After the onions have drained, mix them into the dry ingredients. When combined, make a well in the flour-onion mixture, and add the following wet ingredients: 1 egg-substitute egg or beaten fresh egg; and 4 oz. salad oil (canola or similar). Mix the wet ingredients into the dry, and add up to 3 ounces of cold water, a little at a time, until a “sticky dough” forms.

Divide the mixture into 2 portions to keep the amount of dough you’re working with manageable. Working on a well-floured surface, repeat the following steps for each portion. Add a little flour as necessary to keep the dough from being too sticky to handle.
  • Roll or pat the dough down to ½" thick.
  • Use a 3” diameter round cookie cutter to cut out circles. (For maximum authenticity, cut the circles with a drinking glass instead of a cookie cutter.)
  • Lay the cut-outs, one at a time, on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet (or use silicon cooking pads), pressing each down to ¼” thickness (about 4” diameter) as you place them. Place the cut-outs as close as possible since they don’t spread when heated.
  • After the baking sheet is filled, make three slits in each cut-out to prevent bubbles from forming during the baking.
Bake until browned, but not burnt, about 35 minutes, turning the baking sheet half way for more even baking. (If you’re using two baking sheets, also move each to the other’s location.) When the moonies are done, remove them from the sheet and cool on a rack.
You can serve these warm with butter (or butter substitute), or freeze or refrigerate for later toasting and serving. Or, you can do what my mother likes to do, and leave them out on the counter for a day before serving for firmer texture.

I hope you will enjoy these delicious (and, be warned, potentially addictive) flatbreads. If, by chance, they get you thinking about your own cherished memories of special dinners and the special people who cooked them, so much the better.

For a cookbook-style, notebook-ready copy of this recipe, just drop me a line along with your e-mail address and it will be yours.

That’s it for this week. See you next Saturday with another kitchen-tested reduced fat recipe! Till then, stay well, keep it about the food, and always remember to kiss the cook. Especially if she’s your grandmother.